HAJIYA BILIKSU: A LIFE DEDICATED TO THE SERVICE OF ISLAM AND HUMANITY
By Baba Yunus Muhammad
The Islamic tradition takes great pride in its scholars. The learned of Islam are supposed to be ‘the inheritors of the prophets’. The vocation of a Muslim scholar, therefore, is not to seek knowledge merely for its sake, but to make knowledge a path to guidance and bliss. The true mission of a Muslim scholar is to be a person of thought as well as action. Not only to provide theoretical vision but also to give practical counselling, to be a philosopher, a statesman or a stateswoman all at the same time.
In short, it is the duty of the Muslim scholar to live by the teachings of the Holy Qur’an, and emulate the best model of humanity, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). It is clear that in this vision, there is no place for men or women of ideas who live for and by their ideas alone. In Islam, men or women of ideas have to be people of deeds as well. A Muslim scholar’s responsibility is as much to his or her learning as to his or her community. History testifies that many Muslim scholars has lived upto this very demanding ideal. One such worthy representative of the scholarly tradition of Islam, a woman contemporary with our own age and hence closer to us in thought and emotions, was the late Hajiya Bilkisu, who passed away in Saudi Arabia on the 24th September 2015. Inna Lillahi Wa Inna Ilaihi Raji’un! (From Allah we come and to Him we shall return!).
Indeed, death prompts us to re-examine our assumptions about life. We are affected on the physical, spiritual, and emotional levels when someone close to us dies. If we are not able to effectively cope with such loss, we may be vulnerable to exhaustion, illness, and even premature death. Coping with the death of a loved one is more than getting over the experience and moving on in life!
When the tragic news of Bilkisu’s death in the Makkah stampede was broken to me by a friend and brother, Mallam Ibrahim Sulaiman of the Ahmadu Bello University via a phonically I was not only shocked and devastated, but also utterly confused and thrown into a dream world. I have never known her to be sick, let alone to think of her death at the time it occurred. For several days running, I wished someone could reassure me that the news of her death was, after all, just one of those bad dreams. Alas, every passing second, minute, hour and day the thorny reality of her passing away kept mocking me, and shattered my heart to bits.
The demise of Hajiya Bilkisu is no doubt one of the most unfortunate and saddest events that has happened in my life. Bilkisu’s death is a huge personal loss. As a writer, I have had the opportunity of having many significant relationships, but my relationship with Hajiya Bilkisu would probably be one of the most important and remarkable I may ever have.
For three weeks after her death I have been battling within myself over a difficult decision, whether, in addition to my regular prayers for her, I should share out my thoughts about her and our remarkable relationship. After weeks of hesitation, I have decided to write my first ever tribute to a deceased person in my professional writing career. And I am doing it as a sense of duty because I am sure if there was to be any tribute to be written in my honour in the event of my own death, Hajiya Bilkisu would have been the first person to do it, and she would have done it perfectly well.
In the past three weeks, I have read scores of tributes and stories about her from brothers, sisters and friends. They have been extraordinary – and each story they have shared about this towering personality will surely keep her alive in our hearts and memories for a very, very long time to come.
HOW WE MET
I first met Bilkisu Yusuf, as she was then known, in July 1985 in London, United Kingdom, at the World Conference on the Impact of Nationalism on the Muslim Ummah, an annual international event that was organised by the then Muslim Institute for Research and Planning, London. She, together with late Tijjani El Miskeen of the University of Maiduguri, late Ahmad Muhammad Kani, then of the Ahmadu Bello University, Ishaq Kunle Sani of NACOMYO, Ibadan, and some Nigerian brothers were the delegates from Nigeria. I cannot recall if Hajiya Bilkisu presented a paper at that year’s Conference, but I do remember she was among the panel of discussants of my paper, entitled “the Break up of the Sokoto Caliphate”.
I had circulated a document on the plight of Ghanaian Muslims and a Call for Action among some few carefully selected delegates on the first day of the conference. Bilkisu was among the recipients. When we met at the breakfast lounge of the Conference the following morning, she joined me on my table for us to discuss the document over our breakfast. That morning’s meeting lasted about thirty minutes. From that meeting Ihad a strong impression that it was not possible to have quick informal discussions with Bilkisu. Within minutes, even if she has never met you before, she will behave as though she was your life-long friend. And within minutes, she will have you listening attentively to her.
The following morning we met again. This time the meeting was longer. Over the breakfast, we discussed extensively about the state of Islam and the plight of Muslims in Ghana and some few ideas about establishing an Islamic Centre in the country. Her emphasis was on education as the only sustainable instrument of empowering the Muslims; even though, as a strategy it could take a very long time to make an impact. In fact, we also had several lunch, dinner and late evening coffee meetings at the same spot, where all sorts of issues were laid bare, analysed and debated. Those meetings were revealing as I discovered two interesting features of Bilkisu’s mental make-up.
Indeed, one of the first characteristics of Bilkisu that I noticed from those meetings was her photographic memory: she remembered everything to the minutest of details. A strength that she used to great advantage when she met people. Secondly, I also realised that unlike most Muslim intellectuals and professionals, who once having made their minds on a certain issue saw it as a matter of dishonour to change it, Bilkisu was completely open to suggestions, ever ready to concede her mistakes, and did not hesitate to change her mind when faced with more powerful and convincing arguments.
By the time the conference ended, we had developed an elaborate blueprint to establish a multi-purpose Islamic Centre in Ghana. On the first sight, the proposed centre, with all its ambitious programs looked a bit far-fetched. When I shared the blueprint with some of the delegates for their input and support, the question on the lips of almost all of them was ‘brother, this looks good but where will you find the resources to implement it’? When I later shared my frustration with her over the response I was getting from people, Bilkisu simply told me to ignore all those pessimists, and as if she was encouraging by a flatter, said given my ability to pluck out solutions virtually out of thin air and turn distant dreams into present realities, the project, in her estimation was not an impossible goal. All that I needed was hard work hard and dedication, and of course, a high degree of tawakkul, trust in Allah SWT.
Alhamdulillah, it was nineteen years after our first meeting, precisely in 2004, when the ideas contained in the Blueprint matured and the Centre, known as Al Furqan Foundation was formally established in Tamale, in the Northern region of Ghana. It is to Bilikisu’s credit the Centre has organised four successful major international Islamic events in Ghana: the 1st International Seminar on Islamic Banking and Finance, Accra, 2004; International Seminar on Islamic Education, Tamale, 2005; International Conference on Islamic Family Law, Accra, 2007 and the international Conference on the Future of the Muslim Ummah of Ghana, Tamale, 2008. It is also to her credit that the Centre has established an Islamic educational facility in Tolon, 30 kilometres west of Tamale, Ghana, which was commissioned in 2008 by the then Governor of Kano State, Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau; the establishment of two Islamic subsidiaries, the Ghana Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Africa Islamic Economic Foundation.
After the conference we exchanged contacts, and as the editor of Sunday Triumph, she requested me to send her regular contributions, particularly, articles on the status of women in Islam. This I did regularly from London, until she left Triumph for the New Nigerian in Kaduna as its first female editor in 1987. Her movement to Kaduna had coincided with my relocation to Nigeria in December 1987 when I established the now rested Open Press Nigeria Ltd, a publishing company, which was engaged in the business of Muslim news syndication services; book and newsmagazine publishing, including the distribution of the Crescent International, an international Islamic newsmagazine, published from Toronto, Canada.
The proximity between Zaria, where I lived and operated my business and Kaduna brought us more closely. Those were precious times as she engaged me most of the time during my visits to her at the New Nigerian and later Citizen Magazine in Islamic knowledge sharing sessions. Conscious of her yearnings for spiritual purification and development, tassawuf, was central in our knowledge sharing meetings.
As our relationship travelled through the decades Bilkisu increasingly became a source of inspiration to me, she supported and provided my family an utterly pure Islamic love. More importantly and significantly, when I lost three of my biological sisters in the late 90s, Bilkisu stepped in and took up all the responsibilities required of a biological sister. In her, I had a genuine and dependable sister and a friend. To my two wives, Bilkisu was an ideal sister-in-law who always made them feel comfortable enough to share their worries with her, and she was at all times assuring; to my five children, she was a loving, lovable, disciplined, intelligent and a workaholic aunt, and a perfect example to emulate; and to my aged parents in Ghana, particularly, my mother she remained a devoted daughter, and despite the distance that separated them she remained a sincere comfort and cover until the time she died. Certainly, Bilkisu’s demise has left a great vacuum in my modest family!
A LIFE DEDICATED TO THE SERVICE OF ISLAM AND HUMANITY
Bilkisu’s was a life fully dedicated to the service of Islam with, and by the Pen. Her focal points were the all-conquering love of Allah (SWT) and His Prophet, Muhammad, SAW and the importance of genuine Islamic values for the strengthening of man’s personality. In serving Islam, she followed a method of personal interaction and effectively demonstrated the qualities of a sincere Muslimah by precepts and examples. With this method, coupled with her warmth and wisdom she won over the hearts and minds of her compatriots, both Muslims and Christians alike. She was also instrumental in the formation of one of the most successful and enduring Islamic organizations in Nigeria, the Federation of Muslim Women of Nigeria (FOMWAN). It is noteworthy that FOMWAN has since been replicated in Ghana as Federation of Muslim Women of Ghana (FOMWAG), and through it, she has maintained very close contacts with several Ghanaian Muslim sisters.
Although her political and intellectual sympathies have been with Islam, she has never been a political Islamist, Just as she was incapable of showing blind allegiance to any organisation or intellectual or political position.
In spite of her exceptional intellectual abilities, there was never a slightest trace of arrogance in her attitude. She treated everyone with equal respect. She never looked at people`s status in life to help them, whether rich, poor, short, tall, Christian or Muslim; whether from the north, south, east or west, she gave all equal opportunity. Hers was a rare quality of always putting others before herself in every situation. She listened to every point of view, every argument; and judged its own merit. A corollary of the absence of arrogance was her simplicity. She had no illusions of grandeur nor a desire to amass large quantities of wealth – both conspicuously notable amongst many intellectuals of our age. She was gifted with eyes that saw only the best in people, a heart that forgave the worst, a mind that forgot the bad and a soul that never lost faith in Allah SWT. It was these rare and unique qualities, which enabled her to overcome some of the most difficult personal challenges and vicissitudes in her life.
It is pertinent to point out one fact: if ever there was an area we differed it was my perception about western inspired civil society organizations working in Africa just as she was uncomfortable with my close association with certain Nigerian and African leaders at one time in my life. She would always call to caution me, and for a good reason too, to distance myself from palaces or the seats of power; quoting her directly, she would say,” Mallam kakiyaye fada”. While I considered western NGOs as tools of western cultural imperialism in developing countries, and probably never saw anything good in them, Bilkisu would take her time to enlighten me about the roles and work of civil society organisations in modern democratic societies.
Whether she was able to change my perception about western NGOs is not important here, but her contribution to society through civil society activism, as I later discovered, particularly, in the areas of girl child education, general and maternal health, conflict management and resolution, poverty alleviation, civic education and empowerment, both in Nigeria and abroad is unparalleled. Another important lesson I learnt from our difference on this issue was that; to Bilkisu sincere intention was more fundamental in any human undertaking, as attested to in the words of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW), “Deeds [are measured] by their intentions.” The Messenger of Allah (SAW) also said: “How many are the deeds, which bear the image of the deeds of this world but then become – through their good intention – among the deeds of the Hereafter! And, how many are the deeds, which bear the image of the deeds of the Hereafter but then become – through their evil intention – among the deeds of this world”. To Bilkisu, what was necessary in any of her undertakings was to strive for the pleasure of Allah, the abode of the Hereafter, to alleviate human suffering, the revival of religion, and the survival of Islam.
A WOMAN OF MANY PARTS
Bilkisu was a woman of many parts. She interacted and worked with different layers of society as well as different religious personalities and institutions; probably, the most controversial was her relationship with the Ibrahim El Zakzakky led Islamic movement. In the last few years of her life she had not only given lectures at some of the Movement’s organised events but had published articles on the movement in some of her weekly columns. On several occasions, without her knowledge though, I responded to enquiries from some of our brothers who knew of our closeness, whether my sister had become a Shi’i.
The truth is that Bilikisu was never a Shi’i. What is however important to point out is that in her world there existed two big evils – wars, on the one hand, and ignorance and poverty, on the other – which have stalked human society right down the centuries. Being her primary concern to eliminate those evils she tended to judge all ideas, religious and otherwise, and all social institutions on the extent to which they contributed towards the removal of these evils. In her situation, she might have considered the Islamic movement and other religious or social institutions she interacted with to be, if not fully, committed to the elimination of these evils. Furthermore, in the worldview of Bilkisu the multiplicity of religious traditions and faiths always served as a reminder of the uniqueness of Islam. Every reflection forced on her by the encounter of divergent ideas and plurality of faiths resulted in a sharper perception and a clearer delineations of the contours of Islam.
WHAT THE HOLY QUR’AN MEANT TO HER
Bilkisu, in my opinion, towered and stood out from the rest of us because she understood and took the message of the Holy Qur’an to her heart. While ever conscious of the Hereafter, she lived life to the fullest. Hers was a life not just of hard work and sweat thinking, fighting injustice and inequality, but also of fun and joy. Without experiencing the full potential of life and the intellectual joy of being a Muslimah, how could she seriously think about changing the world for the better?
That is the conviction that the invisible power of the Holy Qur’an, with which she became intimately close in the last two decades of her life created in her.Bilkisu did not acquire this frame of mind by virtue of being born a Muslimah. It encompassed her through various stages: fear, dissatisfaction, disbelief, doubts, speculations, objectivity and rationalization. The Qur’an was not an end for her; it was rather a means to attain her goals in this and the hereafter. It taught her to ponder over every phenomenon she came across and strove to attain its reality, which ultimately led to the knowledge of the Creator.
The deeper she studied the Qur’an, the better she understood Allah’s creation and the more she become aware of Allah’s majesty and power. She considered the Qur’an as meaningful only to the seeker of truth. She perceived the Qur’an as the best means to obtain spiritual and material freedom. The Qur’an, as the Holy Book, which contains the most detailed declaration of freedom and dignity of humankind, made her throw away the clutches of superstition of the ancient and the materialism of the modern. It gave her a scale for a balanced living on this earth, freeing herself from the chains of striving for material superiority and at the same time, providing her with self-esteem, personal and social dignity.
Today, as Bilkisu lay buried in her grave in the Holy land of Makkah- her silent lifetime desire and wish given her emotional attachment to the Holy land- I believe it was only her body that was buried. Her ideas and the ideals she stood and laboured for are still with us. They live on in the tributes and stories people are sharing of how she touched their lives; in the love that is visible in the eyes of her bereaved husband, Brother Mustapha Muhammad Bintube; in the spirit and resilience of her two children, Mashood and Nana Fatima and her four grandchildren. For my family, and me things may never be the same – but the world is better for the years Hajiya Bilkisu lived.
I ask Allah, the Most Generous and Most Magnificent, to crown her with His Mercy, Forgiveness, and reward her with the highest grade of Al Jannah through the intercession and Waseelah of His Beloved Prophet Muhammad, PBUH.
Baba Yunus Muhammad is President, Africa Islamic Economic Foundation, Tamale, Republic of Ghana.